It has been said that:
By a small sample we may judge the whole piece.
This is generally true. Most of us never encounter the ‘whole piece’ of anything, and we are left to infer what we know from what we do encounter. This doesn’t mean that our analysis is always accurate, however. For one thing, the ‘small sample’ must be determined without bias, which is particularly hard to do.
Follow me for a little bit. I need some time to make my case for the theory I have about soundbites, as the title proclaims.
Consider book reviews for a moment. Those of us who read novels generally hear about them from people we know, people we respect, or book reviews. Our views of those books are influenced at first by the feelings of the person who introduced us to them. However, I don’t believe that most readers would report that they like or dislike an author on the basis of a review. I don’t think most readers would report either claim for snippets out of some of the author’s works.
Perhaps reviews and quotations have their place. They entice us, make us curious, or drive us away. It would be dishonest to base our opinion of the author’s work on some quotations or some reviews. After all, reviews and quotations are one level removed from the author, who may have had different feelings entirely. Quotations are especially dangerous not because they are never useful, but because they can be too useful and relied upon too heavily. A quotation must always sacrifice some context in order to be a quotation instead of a full text.
When a reader finally decides they would like to know how they feel about an author, the test is generally pretty simple: Read one of the author’s works. It is not a difficult concept to grasp, particularly because it is fairly common knowledge.
In reading a generic novel, let us suppose that the average length is 800 pages, and the average time spent reading a page is 2 minutes. The amount of time spent reading a novel then is 1600 minutes or nearly 30 hours. Quite a bit of investment into the effort, but in the end you may have a new favorite author, a new favorite book, or at least a good case to never have to read from the author’s works again.
What does this have to do with soundbites?
“Soundbites” are those little clips of people talking on radio or television. They are played over and over through news stories or on talk shows. They parallel book quotations and reviews in several ways: They always sacrifice at least some context, and they are not chosen without bias.
Recently, Rush Limbaugh, a very popular radio talk show host, came under fire for a few things he said about a college student who testified to congress about birth control. I’m not going to get into a political issue in this thread, but over the course of his monologue he said a few things that were less than helpful and even hurtful for some. He apologized soon after with some taking his apology seriously and others dismissing it outright as fake. Neither side particularly matters for my Theory on Soundbites.
My Theory is this: We use Soundbites to judge the speaker in ways we would never use book quotations and reviews to judge authors, who we typically afford the respect of reading before making our final conclusions.
Angry people on Facebook, news sites, talk shows, and radio shows all gave their reviews of the character of Limbaugh based on less than one minute of speech.
If you spent 60 seconds reading a book before deciding you enjoyed the author or book, based on our numbers earlier, you would be basing your review on .0625% of one of the author’s works. Not particularly helpful if you want an accurate view.
But consider for a moment how much time Limbaugh spends on his show a year. 5 days a week, 3 hours a day, 52 weeks a year; approximately. Instead of our 30 hour book, this is 780 hours per year of communication. Sixty seconds of this is .00214%.
This is a source of great irritation for me. Somewhere between thousands and millions of people base their entire opinions of people like Limbaugh not on the charities they do, the good things they say, honest analysis during listening or reading, or communicating with them directly. They base it on .00214% of what is said over the course of a year, specifically pulled out not randomly, but with an intent in mind. It is without entire context, as all quotations are; how many people who made sweeping criticisms of Limbaugh even bothered to listen to the full hour that this soundbite appeared in?
In the end, if we are going to allow people with recorders the opportunity to dictate our opinions of people, we are in a sad state. Instead of appealing to Soundbites, why don’t we spend some time listening? If, after a day or perhaps a week, one still has the same opinion of Limbaugh or any other person in his position, I will be genuinely surprised.